For the first time in 15 years, the Federal Communications Commission on Friday took steps to reexamine safety standards for cell phones amid growing concerns about the health risks associated with radiation from mobile devices.
At question is whether limits the FCC puts on radio frequency emission for cellular devices are outdated and do not take into account the use of new mobile technology and the amount of time users spend on devices.
The debate has drawn huge protest from the $170 billion wireless industry, which has lobbied the FCC and local governments against new standards and proposals for greater disclosure of health warnings.
The FCC’s action on Friday was preliminary, with the five commissioners presented with a draft proposal to take up a review of its safety guidelines. The FCC will vote at an undetermined future date on whether to pursue an official investigation into the topic. The agency downplayed the significance of the action and said it believes current standards are safe.
“We are confident that, as set, the emissions guidelines for devices pose no risk to consumers,” Tammy Sun, a FCC spokeswoman said in a statement. The agency said it was uncertain when a vote would take place.
The agency’s move comes amid protest by health advocates that federal regulators have ignored warnings by international experts of potential safety issues related to mobile phones.
In May 2011, a panel of health experts organized by the World Health Organization looked at hundreds of recent studies on the topic and concluded that cell phones are “possibly carcinogenic” to humans.
The WHO panel said particular concern is the use of cell phones by children, who spend more time than ever with cell phones up to their ears or in their pockets. Their skulls are thinner than that of an adult and absorb radio frequencies at higher rates.
A separate February 2011 study by researchers at the National Institute of Health found that 50 minutes of cell phone use altered activity of the brain that was closest to where device antennas were located.
“This review is long overdue, and it is impossible to imagine how the FCC will be able to retain its current standards which allow 20 times more radiation to reach the head than the body as a whole, do not account for risks to children’s developing brains and smaller bodies, and consider only short-term cell phone use, not frequent calling patterns over decades,” said Renee Sharp, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group.
The FCC's proposed inquiry specifically addresses health considerations for children.
Any changes in cell phone guidelines have been vehemently opposed by the cell phone industry, which has also fought local government laws around the country that would require safety labels on phones and other consumer disclosures about radio frequency emissions.
The wireless trade group known as CTIA sued San Francisco over an ordinance that would require retailers to disclose those radiation standards to consumers. It has fought similar measures in Maine and Oregon.
Blackberries, iPhones and other devices are sold with manuals with cautionary guidelines on cell phones use.
A spokesman for CTIA stressed that research so far has been inconclusive.
“Expert agencies and scientific advisory groups around the world have concluded that cell phones operating within government standards post no health effects and are safe for normal use,” the spokesman said.